On Thursday, Dorian Warren, a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and an MSNBC contributor, spoke in Griffin 3 to commemorate the anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a piece of legislation that enforced minorities’ right to vote following the ratification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. The Black Student Union hosted the talk in partnership with the Davis Center.
Warren began by establishing the context and history of the Act as a result of the 1964 election of President Lyndon B. Johnson. The Act also followed several important events of the Civil Rights Movement, including the case of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Warren briefly discussed Johnson’s campaign and platform, in which he declared war on poverty and vowed to end all nationwide poverty by 1976.
Warren then drew attention to Barry Goldwater, Johnson’s Republican opponent in the 1964 election. Prior to the election, the Republican party was remarkably different from what it is today. As an example, Warren presented a short video clip with quotes from Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower, president from 1953-61, in which he strongly supported the formation of unions.
Warren then posed a question to the audience: What changed the Republican Party? With an expanded voter pool of African Americans and other minorities following the Voting Rights Act, Warren explained how a new population of disgruntled Southern whites migrated to the Republican Party, which catered to their anti-civil rights position. The new voter base, while giving the Republican Party the voting power it needed, significantly altered its positions from prior years, which eventually led to the modern Republican Party.
Though it lost him the election, Barry Goldwater’s political strategy lived on in the Republican party. This strategy, as Warren explained, relied heavily on dog-whistle politics, or the use of coded messages in campaigning to single out certain groups while appealing to others. Several instances of Republican dog-whistling followed Goldwater’s campaign, including President Richard Nixon’s campaign. Nixon promoted the idea of bringing law and order to the United States, a strategy that was mainly targeted at shutting down primarily black civil rights protests at the time.
Warren talked about another instance of dog-whistling during President Ronald Reagan’s campaign: Reagan chose to launch his campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., a place infamous for the murders of three civil rights workers in 1964. By deciding to kick off a campaign in one of the most historically Republican areas in the nation, Warren noted, Reagan sent a subtle message to Americans about his views.
This strategy can also be seen in the current Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, according to Warren. He noted that although he is unsure if Trump is a racist, he believes that Trump uses race as a strategic device to gain support. “If you want to draw a straight line, in terms of where the strategy comes from for Donald Trump, this is a 40 or 50 year-old strategy of using race to win elections,” Warren said.
Warren then turned attention to today’s rise in income inequality and the steadily increasing gap between the upper and lower classes. He also noted that mass incarceration rates are higher than ever, illustrated by the fact that the United States spends more money on incarceration than any other country.
Warren acknowledged that there was a period immediately following the civil rights movement during which social mobility was at its peak. However, Warren argued, this is no longer the case.
“The United States is no longer the nation of social mobility,” Warren said. It is no longer the nation where if you’re born poor, you have a chance to make it into the middle class, to become rich,” Warren said. “Rich people stay rich. Poor people stay poor.”
Warren concluded by highlighting the growing distance between voters and social classes in the United States. Increased voting regulations were enacted in 2010 to make it harder for Americans to vote. Finally, he discussed the requirements for a good democracy, including public accessibility and election frequency.
“Since the passage of the Voting Rights Act, we have become a much more unequal society by income and socio-economic status, even if there’s been democratic inclusion for people of color,” Warren said. “We’ve become much more oligarchic as a society, and that’s a point of worry.”